Commercial Drive: Vancouver’s own taste of Europe

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      Havana restaurant general manager Rich Charrois is no stranger to how an amazing patio can elevate a business. The Cuban-themed Commercial Drive eatery has long been one of the go-to spots in the city, in part due to its amazing outdoor patio. 

      As has been the case for many restaurants on the Drive, Havana’s outdoor seating capacity has expanded during the pandemic, thanks to the city greenlighting curb-side patios right on the street. And as anyone who’s been on the Drive can attest, that’s upped the distinctly European vibe that’s long been part of the neighbourhood’s character. And now, with these new patios looking like they might become permanent, business owners and managers like Charrois couldn’t be more thrilled. 

      “I believe this is probably going to be the biggest change to Commercial Drive that I’ve seen yet,” Charrois said. “I think it’s going to be a massive thing … I’m really excited about it.” 

      Last month Vancouver city council agreed to green light the motion to change the busy arterial road of Commercial Drive into a pedestrian-first, European-style “high street.” 

      As one of the most historic and culturally rich streets in the city, Commercial Drive is noted for its strong theatre and arts scene, specialty food stores, cafés, bars, boutiques, second-hand shops, and funky restaurants. Adding to it’s Euro-likeness is, of course, the eight-block-presence of Little Italy, thanks to Italian immigrants settling into the area in the middle of last century. 

      Considering all the Drive has to offer, city council members Pete Fry and Melissa De Genova submitted a motion in May to transform the traffic-heavy street into a stop-and-shop destination. Changes to the Drive in proposal included: slowing the street and reducing the number of traffic lanes; widening sidewalks and enhancing crosswalks for pedestrians; adding seating, landscaping, street furniture, plazas and piazzas, and public art to the area; and upgrading bike-locking infrastructure.  

      The motion was passed on May 27. 

      “The Drive experience is best appreciated in person,” Fry told the Straight. “The gastronomic diversity, the eclectic and independent mix of shops and shoppers, and all the quirks and funk is what gives the Drive its flavour – these changes as proposed are really about getting out of the way, giving the community some certainty about the future, and letting the Drive do its thing.”

      The business owners on the Drive contacted by the Straight seem pleased. 

      Havana manager Charrois said he believes this “stop-and-shop” plan for the Drive just makes sense, given the neighbourhood’s strong sense of community.

      “The community aspect of the Drive is unparalleled to anywhere else in the city,” he said. “I’ve lived in multiple areas of the city – and not to speak down on any other neighbourhood – but the ‘community-first’ mentality and ‘supporting-local’ mentality is just so much stronger here.”

      Charrois said that aspect of community has only strengthened on Commercial since the pandemic forced businesses (including his own) to move outside.

      Outdoor patios have been one way Vancouverites have been able to support local businesses in a safe and fun way during COVID-19
      Lori Miles Photography

      “The Drive’s always been vibrant, always been lively – but now we’re able to sit in the street, on these patios,” Charrois said. “It just adds such a different energy and vibe to the street.” 

      Since the pandemic, Havana has added an extra 8 tables and 48 seats thanks to its street-side patio expansion.

      “There's a patio on both sides of the sidewalk as you're walking through, so, it's a pretty cool experience to be able to walk down the street and see all your friends and family and neighbours,” Charrois said. “Strangely enough, it's given a bit more of that connection that everyone has been looking for. Just to be just around people – like literally around people and on both sides of you – it feels good. It feels really, really good.” 

      Eric Fergie, owner of Fets Whisky Kitchen, also sees this change to the street as a positive for his business - especially if the extended patios he added during the pandemic are able to become a permanent fixture. 

      “Our customers love it,” Fergie said. “Curb-side patios, they’re a great addition to the city, and they should definitely, definitely be kept [post-COVID]. They add a vibrancy to the city, which is really cool … It just makes it more fun.”

      “It’s also taking more cars off the road,” Fergie added. “Which is good when you have a lot of bike-routes.” 

      Bike lanes have been a hotly-debated issue on Commercial Drive for years. Councillor Fry said that while the motion does not involve putting in a bike lane on the Drive, a 30 km/hr reduced-speed limit will make it more accessible for cyclists. 

      Fry told the Straight: “The entire motion was an attempt to move past the controversy [of bike lanes] and find a way to compromise various uses and needs through a slowed street – with a more comfortable pedestrian and cyclist experience, shared roads and mixed traffic, allowing parking spaces that can accommodate parking or patios or parklets.” 

      Bikes lanes have been a hot button issue for the Drive for years; this motion hopes to "move past the controversy" says Councillor Fry
      Norman Galimski

      Lesley McHale, President of the Commercial Drive Business Society (BIA), says this compromise is a good one.

      “No matter how people arrive at the Drive – by car, transit, bike, skateboard, scooter or wheelchair – all folks will have the opportunity to stop and experience the unique Commercial Drive vibe, shop, dine and support the small local businesses,” she said.

      McHale added that this motion was one inspired by and brought to city council by the business owners and residents of the community itself. 

      “Many hours of work, due diligence and community consultation went into the creation of the Commercial Drive pedestrian first vision document,” she said. “There were so many folks who completed surveys, showed up for the town hall meetings, engaged in lengthy discussions and spoke to the mayor and council in favour of passing this motion. It is not surprising, because this is a community of people who show up.”

      While there’s been no timeline or budget set yet on the high-street motion, Fry says there are already plans to see which projects can be started. 

      “Staff have identified some actions we could deploy pretty quickly as part of regular maintenance and street improvements, and active programs like expedited temporary patios and adding bike locking infrastructure through our parking meter replacement program,” he said. “The first order of business will be consulting with some of the various stakeholders on the Drive.”

      Charrois is excited for the changes to come. 

      “I think it's going to really change the community for the better,” he said. “Community is something that during this pandemic we just haven't had … This is an opportunity for us to all come together, and I think this could be the best possible thing for us.”